Don't be fooled. Inside this thin coating of sweetness is a fiery core of total insanity.

Friday, August 2, 2019

A Year in the Making

In my previous Tell the Truth Tuesday post about how I keep my garden watered in the summer, I mentioned my new prairie/meadow-type garden bed. I've posted a few photos of this bed on Instagram, but haven't posted anything about it in the more lengthy, detailed blog format. Are you interested in reading about this bed and seeing more detailed pictures of how I went about putting it in, and why? I hope so.

I'm going to start with a little history.

The long bed that runs along the southern edge of our front yard has been a problem ever since we moved in. It was one of the few original beds that existed when our previous owners lived here. Our house was built by the previous owner for his family, in fact, he owned his own building company. Besides the fact that all the native subsoil here is glacial till (sandy soil and lots of rocks), the topsoil in this bed is sand, covered with bark mulch.

Sand, like at the beach. Although I've tried amending it with compost, digging in this bed is still very much like spending a day playing at the beach. If it's wet, I could literally build a sand castle with it. So not only is the sand fast-draining, but it's also basically a raised bed. It's hard to see in the following photos, but on the neighbor's side of the bed is a retaining wall that goes from about 12 inches high at the street to four feet high 60 feet in.

This photo of the bed was taken either on the day of our home inspection, or very soon after moving in, back in 2009 -- the gravel you can see just beyond is my neighbor's driveway

Another view of the same bed taken from the other direction, looking toward the street, later that same year

This bed has gone through a few changes since we moved here, one major one being the removal of two of the trees. In an ice storm in January, 2012, we lost the top half of one of them, and decided to get rid of it that summer. It made sense to also take out the cherry tree near the street, which dropped immature fruit every year as well as constantly producing runners everywhere in the bed and the lawn from its roots. We replaced them with a paperbark maple/Acer griseum and a 'Forest Pansy' redbud/Cercis canadensis.

The bed after the two trees were removed -- here you can also see my neighbor's side of the retaining wall

In this photo from 2013 it's very colorful, but most of that is from annuals like California poppies and Nasturtiums

I edged my side of the bed with the thousands of rocks that all my beds produce like a crop

I have always found the soil in this bed frustrating. It's hard to keep watered in the summer, and it's so sandy and lean that I really needed a crash course in what would thrive there. Although the trees provide some shade, it's along the southern boundary of our house, so it gets southern summer sun, and the reflected heat of all that gravel from the neighbor's driveway. It was easy to ignore it, however, once we redid the front garden and installed the greenhouse, because the bed was more or less hidden on the opposite side of the greenhouse and I seldom went there.

But last year I finally decided to tackle it.

By 2018, neglect had more or less turned the bed into a wasteland of weeds

Starting in August of last year (2018), I started pulling out everything that was growing in it -- weeds, perennials, small shrubs. Most of them got tossed. I dug around things I wanted to save, figuring I'd leave them in over the winter and then pull and divide them quickly in the spring when I was finally ready to replant the entire bed.

Here you can see I've dug around some Sedum 'Autumn Joy,' three large clumps of Kniphofia, a huge, 24-inch wide clump of Phlomis russeliana, some Baptisia and lilies

Of course, the fall rains caused all those seeds that I had disturbed to spring up -- hooray, light and water, just what we need!

A winter full of rain, cold, sickness, snow, more rain and cold, aches and pains (I AM 63 after all) made me pause for a while. During that pause, I did a lot of reading and seed-sowing. I knew by now that I was going to turn the area into a prairie garden. That lean, well-draining soil seemed ideal for those kinds of plants, from what I've read. I had actually already started buying and stockpiling suitable plants back in the fall -- grasses, Amsonia hubrichtii, Stachys 'Hummelo,' Sanguisorba, Amorpha canescens, and others.

What did I read? I started with Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West. I heard her speak at the Hardy Plant Study Weekend, and found her inspiring. From there I went on, of course, to Planting: A New Perspective by Noel Kingsbury and Piet Oudulf, and then, because I knew I'd be starting a lot of plants from seed, Sowing Beauty: Designing Flowering Meadows From Seed by James Hitchmough.

Books that I already owned that I hauled out to re-read were: The Water-Saving Garden By Pam Penick; Grasses by Nan Ondra; and Drought Resistant Planting: Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden.

In early spring whenever I could I'd spend a couple of hours out there on my hands and knees digging up the weedy grasses and plants like red campion and California poppy that had sown themselves in the millions throughout the bed.

Big pile of campion

At this end of the bed I dug around some healthy clumps of daylilies and a Yucca linearifolia

After I dug up the daylilies I left them in clumps while I waited to divide them -- I still have several clumps sitting around

Making progress, although I was not looking forward to digging out that fully grown Physocarpus 'Diablo' on the left -- on the right hand side you can see some of the millions of seedlings destined for life in this bed

At one point, my neighbor Mary came home from work and saw me on my hands and knees pulling California poppies in the bed near the street, and claimed she could see them springing up behind me as I worked. I wouldn't be surprised if that was true.

Meanwhile, I would haul the seedlings that I had sown in the greenhouse out every day for some fresh air and sunshine, and then haul them back in every night.

Little pots, full of seedlings...

Finally, by May 19, except for a couple of Baptisias which I had decided to leave, as well as a couple of clumps of low-growing Sedums and some ornamental Oregano, the bed was empty. Now I had a deadline. I wanted to get it filled up again and everything planted before I went away to the Garden Bloggers Fling, in mid-June.

Empty! (mostly)

Lonely Baptisia

Sedums out by the street

I made myself a printout of everything I had sown that I had multiple pots of, organized by height, and then got out there and physically grouped all the plants of similar height together, so that I could sort of plant them in waves from the center outward.

I started with a shrub, maybe hard to see, right in the center -- an 'Austin Griffiths' Arctostaphylos, and some grasses, namely Panicum 'Northwind'

I had sowed a lot of blue and pink Salvias, because I wanted the bed to have a ribbon of Salvia -- it's not big enough for a whole river

Slowly placing more plants, working for a few hours every day

So many plants to keep track of, it started to do my head in a bit

Besides planting the many potted plants that I had overwintered, as well as the thousands of seedlings I had produced, I also had to divide and replant the perennials I had dug up. I figured anything that had not only lived through my years of neglect in that bed, but had actually managed to increase, deserved to be saved and replanted. So for a few days I clawed around the rootballs of three clumps of Autumn Joy Sedum, Phlomis russeliana, Kniphofia uvaria, Astrantia major 'Vanilla Gorilla' and Hemerocallis 'Bold Tiger' and produced lots and lots of divisions to be replanted.

Replanted tiny Astrantia division

Clumps of Sedum 'Autumn Joy' and Kniphofia uvaria

Finally done, just in time to go away!

The overturned pot is marking the spot where I'd like to plant another shrub. I'd like to move my Embothrium coccineum to here so that it can get more light, but it's not a good time of year for moving stuff like that. I'm marking its place till fall/early winter.

Woo Hoo!

In case you're curious, this bed is 10 feet wide by 50 feet long.

Here is how it looks now, about a month and a half later.

The Astrantia divisions are pushing out lots of new growth

Phlomis russeliana has already started increasing in size

I tried starting Dalea purpurea from seed in pots inside the greenhouse, but couldn't get them to live in the pot once they had sprouted, so I decided to try sowing them direct in the bed

Muhlenbergia rigens, the only one of three that survived the winter in its nursery pot outside

Some of those tiny seedlings are getting quite large

Some of the seeds that I ordered were from Prairie Moon Nursery, which specializes in American prairie plants, either from seed or plugs. I decided early in the spring to order plugs of some plants that I hadn't had much success with. Unfortunately, the Verbena stricta that they sent me turned out to be the wrong plant, they sent Verbena urticifolia instead, which has a white flower. Fortunately, they let me know, and offered a credit.

Verbena urticifolia

There are still too many bare spots that I hope will fill in, either with low growers or with widening clumps -- in the meantime I need to keep them free of weeds

From Seed:
Erigeron karvinskiana 'Stallone'
Verbascum phoenicium 'Violetta'
Veronica longifolia 'Pink Shades'
Veronica longifolia 'Blue Shades'
Salvia nemorosa New Dimension Rose
Agastache cana 'Bolero'
Agastache pallida 'Globetrotter'
Agastache mexicana 'Sangria'
Salvia nemorosa 'Rosenwein'
Digitalis ferruginea 'Yellow Herald'
Agastache foeniculum
Hyssopus angustifolia
Pycnanthemum virginianum
Monarda fistulosa
Dalea purpurea
Heliopsis helianthoides var. scabra 'Burning Hearts'
Calamintha nepeta 'Marvelette Blue & White'
Calamintha nepeta 'Blue Cloud'
Salvia azurea
Digitalis parviflora
Digitalis ferruginea var. gigantea
Selinum tenuifolium
Trifolium rubens
Dianthus carthusianorum
Salvia verticillata 'Purple Fairy Tale'
Salvia superba 'Adora Blue'
Salvia 'Blue Queen'
Salvia 'Rose Queen'
Centranthus ruber
Platycodon grandiflorus
Agastache aurantiaca 'Navajo Sunset'
Salvia nutans
Erigeron glaucus
Erigeron speciosus 'Azure Fairy'
Echinacea paradoxa
Hyssopus officinalis
Vernonia fasciculata
Echinacea purpurea
Agastache mexicana 'Sangria'
Agastache cana 'Heather Queen'
Echinacea pallida
Ratibida columnifera
Daucus carota
Ammi majus
Lupinus 'Minarette'
Baptisia australis
Rudbeckia maxima
Verbena stricta
Veronica teucrium ‘Royal Blue’
Shasta Crazy Daisy

Plugs from Prairie Moon Nursery:
Ruellia humilis
Veronicastrum virginicum
Salvia azurea
Penstemon pallidus
Parthenium integrifolium
Coreopsis lanceolata
Verbena urticifolia

From divisions:
Inula magnifica
Phlomis russeliana
Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’
Kniphofia uvaria
Hemerocallis 'Bold Tiger'
Astrantia 'Vanilla Gorilla'

From local nurseries:
Amsonia hubrichtii
Stachys officinalis ‘Hummelo’
Amorpha canescens
Geranium 'Rozanne'

Grasses from various nurseries
Panicum 'Heavy Metal'
Panicum 'North Wind'
Deschampsia caespitosa
Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'

So, that's the story of what's been obsessively occupying me for the last year. How about you?